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How football built bridges between Israel and Germany

Felix Tamsut
October 19, 2021

Football was one of the catalysts for the ever-warming relations between Germany and Israel. As Germany's women face Israel in World Cup qualifying, DW revisits how the sport has built bridges between the two countries.

Germany captain Lothar Matthäus (left) shaking hands with his Israeli counterpart before a friendly in 1987
Germany captain Lothar Matthäus (left) shook hands with his Israeli counterpart before a friendly in 1987Image: imago sportfotodienst

As Germany's and Israel's women's national teams meet twice over the next week, the only thing at stake is a spot in the 2023 Women"s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

But games in which Germans and Israelis shared the pitch served a greater purpose during the 20th century, playing a key role in helping the two countries develop an understanding of one another following the Holocaust.

Nowadays, Israelis play football in Germany, Germans play football in Israel and clubs and national teams from both countries regularly meet. Three German clubs have official fan clubs in Israel: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and FC Augsburg. The German national team, too, have its own official supporters club in the Jewish state.

Getting to this point required decades of progress, especially when it came to Germany's perception among Israelis, and football helped bring about part of that progress.

For Israelis, Germany was the Holocaust

"In the 1960s, there was great interest from [West] Germany's politicians to build the country's relations with Israel, with the purpose of its own rehabilitation as a democratic society," Dr. Jenny Hestermann, an interim professor of Israel and Middle East studies at the College for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, told DW.

"This happened not only on political level, but also through collaborations in different areas of society."

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer shaking hands in 1960.
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (left) and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer met in 1960Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Israel's government also had an interest in pursuing relations, according to Hestermann, but mostly for pragmatic reasons as a young country struggling for survival rather than for reconciliation. But the Israeli public, made up mostly of Holocaust survivors, still associated Germany with the Nazis, fascism and the mass murder of European Jews during World War II.

In those days, any cooperation between Israel and West Germany would result in protests, public discussion and, in once instance at least, attempted terrorism. In October 1952, a man was arrested at the Israeli foreign office with an explosive device in his bag after it became known that Israel had entered negotiations with West Germany over the repatriation agreement for the Jews resettled in the Jewish state after the Holocaust.

Mostly, the question was whether the Israeli public was ready for getting closer to the country of the perpetrators, both politically and culturally.

Football as a diplomatic tool

One of the means the West German government used to woo the Israeli public and its leaders was football. At that point, West Germany had won the 1954 World Cup and become a real force in world football.

But it wasn’t until November 1968, two decades after the establishment of the state of Israel, that a West German national team finally traveled there. An under-19 squad, led by coaching legend Udo Lattek, held a training camp at the Wingate Institute near Tel Aviv in anticipation of the 1969 UEFA Youth Tournament in Leipzig, East Germany.

Young stars such as Uli Hoeness and Paul Breitner spent three months in Israel, ending the trip with a series of friendlies against local sides. The exhibitions were held behind closed doors as small protests against the German team's presence took place outside.

Israel's national team at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico
Israel's national team took part in the 1970 World Cup in MexicoImage: Imago Images

Later, in 1969, Lattek's side would face the Israeli national team, which was holding a training camp in Hennef, West Germany as part of preparations for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Diplomats from both countries were in attendance for the game, after which a reception for the Israeli team took place at the Interior Ministry in the then-West German capital, Bonn.

First known Israeli to play football in Germany

One member of that national team then was Yochanan Vollach, an Israeli with German roots who became the first known citizen of the Jewish state to play football on German soil after the Holocaust.

Vollach, now 76, recalled how the German diplomats were worried their invitation to the reception would not be accepted.

"We were the first generation born after the Holocaust, and the Germans wanted to see how we would react," he told DW, deeming the event as a success. "They were surprised by how well-behaved we were. They did not believe we were football players."

Vollach was born in 1945 in what was then Palestine. His parents had fled Germany shortly before World War II, which made him a "Yeke," the Israeli slang expression for German Jews. 

In 1956, when Vollach was 11, he traveled to West Germany with his father during one of his trips to search for the property his family had lost during the Holocaust. He spent several months in Lower Saxony, where he often played with local kids.

"No one spoke to me about World War II or anything. We were just kids playing football. They didn't know anything about it. I didn't either," Vollach told DW. "Once you're good at football, everything is easier."

He went on to become a footballing legend with Hapoel Haifa and a member of Israel's only World Cup squad in 1970.

Key friendship between two coaches

Perhaps the most prominent example of improved relations between Germany and Israel was Emmanuel Scheffer, the coach that led Israel to the 1970 World Cup — still the nation's only appearance.

Emmanuel Scheffer at Israel's training camp in Hennef, West Germany
Israel national team coach Emmanuel Scheffer took his team to a training camp in Hennef, West GermanyImage: Horstmüller/imago image

Born in Poland in 1924, Scheffer moved to southwest Germany when he was 1 month old. Though he survived the Holocaust, his whole family was murdered by Nazis.

In 1958, long before there were diplomatic relations between Israel and West Germany, Scheffer received his footballing education at the Sports College in Cologne.

"After West Germany had won the World Cup in 1954, he regarded them as the best, and as a perfectionist, he had to go there," his son Eran told Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2014. "He separated between football and the past."

He was taught by Hennes Weisweiler, a German coaching legend who later won the UEFA Cup and a Bundesliga title with Borussia Mönchengladbach. Scheffer was chosen by his fellow students as one of the course's two top performers, with the other being legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels.

Hennes Weisweiler (left) draws tactics on a chalk board
Scheffer got his football education from coaching legend Hennes Weisweiler (left)Image: Horstmüller/imago images

The friendship which developed between Scheffer and Weisweiler during the course was the catalyst to a new era of cooperation between Israeli and German football. In fact, Weisweiler's Mönchengladbach side became the first German top-flight club to travel to Israel when it played Scheffer's national squad in a friendly shortly before the 1970 World Cup. Perhaps it's no coincidence either that the German coaching legend gave Shmuel Rosenthal, the Bundesliga's first Israeli player, his debut in 1972.

Legendary Israeli goalkeeper Itzhak Vissoker said Scheffer, who died in 2012, was a "tactical genius" who "brought German discipline to Israeli football," a description with which compatriot Yochanan Vollach agrees.

"He was a tough man," Vollach told DW. "But I've never seen anyone who understands football like him."

Football key to transformation in relations

Football has continued play a key role in improving ties between Germany and Israel. 

In 1987, West Germany played its first game against Israel at the Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv, one of four friendlies between the two national teams to take place since then.

German player Uwe Rahn avoids a tackle with two Israeli players during the first ever game between the two national teams.
Israel and West Germany first played each other at the Ramat Gan Stadium in 1987Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Not only have 10 Israeli players featured in Germany's top-flight Bundesliga, but four Germans have appeared in Israel's Ligat Ha'al, the Israeli Premier League, chief among them Maccabi Netanya fan favorite Tim Heubach. Israeli international striker Sharon Beck currently plays for Women's Bundesliga side Cologne.

Several Israeli teams have played German clubs since Israel joined UEFA in 1992, most recently Union Berlin against Maccabi Haifa in September.

For Vissoker, football has played an important role in promoting understanding for the other side for both Germans and Israelis.

"We were carrying the heavy burden of the Holocaust. Those games made you understand that those on the other side are people, and that your opponent wants to play football," he said.

Vollach agrees. "I'm very happy that the Germans' attempts to strengthen the ties between both countries due to their guilty feelings were successful."

90 Minutes for Israel and Germany

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Felix Tamsut Sports reporter@ftamsut